The word iconoclast, when it is used nowadays, most often refers to a person who "attacks established beliefs, ideals, customs, or institution," as Webster's Third puts it -- a definition that turns the iconoclast into a cultural rebel or a free thinker, an individual willing to buck the establishment.
By this standard, the Danish cartoonist who drew the controversial caricatures of Mohammed was an iconoclast in our modern sense, and was simply doing what many cartoonists have done before him, using his gifts to poke fun at sacred cows. True, the sacred cow, in this case, was the Prophet Mohammed, revered by millions of Muslims across the globe. Yet the artists who created the popular TV series South Park routinely represent the figure of Jesus in all manner of mocking ways -- in one episode, Jesus was portrayed in boxing shorts, fighting a grudge match against Satan. No doubt many Southern Baptists were offended by such a caricature. Yet none of them rioted about it.
Here in the contemporary West, for better or worse, there is no cow so sacred that it cannot be made sport of on national television, let alone in cartoons in small scale periodicals. We may regret this or we may rejoice over it, but in either case, we must recognize that the role of the court jester has been valuable in the West precisely because the court jester is permitted to remind the king that he is only human -- and what a useful function that can serve. Thus, parody is a prophylactic against pomposity -- though it is equally serviceable as a collective defense mechanism against fanaticism.
The fanatic is the man who will not allow you to poke fun at his particular sacred cow. He takes his creed so seriously that he refuses to permit anyone else to treat it as a subject for humor or levity.
The topic of fanaticism, however, takes us back to the original meaning of the word iconoclasm, a Greek word that literally means the shattering or destruction of an image, either a visual image, like the icons beloved by Greek Orthodoxy, or the kind of statues that were admired by Roman Catholics. Here the iconoclast is not creating an image designed to provoke irreverence, the way a cartoonist does, but he is intent on eliminating all offensive images completely and totally.
There were two great iconoclastic movements that shook the Byzantine Empire, first in the eighth century, and later in the ninth century, both of which exhibited the same fanatic zeal in destroying the thousands of icons that adorned Byzantine churches and monasteries. Why? Because the Byzantine iconoclasts argued that what were regarded by many as beautiful artistic treasures were in fact acts of sacrilege and blasphemy. They were not to be removed from the churches and monasteries, in order to be carefully preserved in a museum, as a government of zealous atheists might do -- no, they were to be destroyed root and branch.
Many modern historians have argued that the outbreak of Byzantine iconoclasm in the eighth century was the result of the expansion of the intensely iconoclastic Arab conquerors that had occurred in the previous century -- an expansion that gobbled up large chunks of the Byzantine Empire in what is now Syria. For the Arabs, however, it was not enough merely to destroy the sacred icons of Greek orthodoxy -- for them, all pictorial representation was forbidden. You could not draw a man or a peacock or a cat, nor could you make statues of them -- and any drawings or statues of them you came across had to be immediately destroyed.
The Protestant Reformers, who were also iconoclasts, were less severe. They simply wanted to obliterate any image of the Virgin Mary or of the Catholic Saints that they did not themselves accept -- and here again, not even a thought was given to the idea of sparing the item due to historical or artistic value.
Wherever iconoclasts triumphed, they did not rest content until they had destroyed all the images that they found to be sacrilegious -- what we in the modern West automatically regard as harmless art, the iconoclasts see as hideous blasphemy; and while to us a "mere" cartoon can be amusing or disgusting, none of us would wish to see every image of it effaced from the earth. We would preserve it simply because of its documentary value, if for no other reason. That is why the iconoclast is, by definition, a fanatic. He feels he has a mission to destroy all the images that he holds to be against his fanatical creed. All must perish.
It has been almost half a millennium since the last outbreak of iconoclastic fanaticism in the West. Yet if you try to discover a republication of the Danish cartoons on the reputable Internet sites, you will discover that they are not being posted. CNN on line noted that they would not be showing the cartoons "out of respect for Islam." Nor does CNN's stance seem to be exceptional. Meanwhile, profuse apologies are being offered to the Muslim world by men who had nothing whatsoever to do with either the creation or the publication of the cartoons, and who are denouncing the cartoons for being...cartoons.
In short, the new iconoclasts are winning -- they are realizing that they have the power to make us suppress any image that they find disagreeable to their stern and mirthless fanaticism -- even if it is just a funny cartoon in a paper published in a cold corner of Europe, far far from Mecca.
Either Muslims need to begin to get a sense of humor, or we need to became a great deal more serious.